Growing despair on Indian and Australian farms

calcutta.jpg

Rich colors in the slums, Calcutta. Photograph by Foreign Devil Correspondent.

I'm moving from Melbourne to Sydney in a couple of weeks. I'm planning to spend half the year in Darlinghurst, on the edge of Sydney's CBD, and some part of the rest of the year in Calcutta's Central Business District in the Park Street area, near the site of the book fair, Sourav Ganguly's restaurant, and a zoo that I've heard is also a retirement home for ill and aged tigers. The slums in this photo are as unlikely to be a part of my life as Melbourne's outer suburbs are now, or Sydney's will be. I'm an inner urban creature. In Sydney I'll be writing about food production and agriculture from the safe vantage point of the Kings Cross Farmers Market, cafes that serve a rich and smooth (non-genetically-modified-soy) caffe latte, and a Korean restaurant that serves a spicy (non-GM-tofu) soup that erupts like a volcano as its being brought to the table, a favourite dish of mine when I lived in Los Angeles.

But none of us can escape the reality of the big picture. The recent United Nations Population Fund report on world population states that next year half the world's population, 3.3 billion of us, will be urban creatures. Most of the new urbanites will be poor, hugging the perimeters of the mega-cities in slums. "Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth," says the report. While the New York Times extrapolated from the report that people are moving out of some of the world's mega-cities — among them Calcutta, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Seoul — Calcutta's neighbouring city of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, as well as Lagos, are predicted to grow by 3% over the next 10 years. The specter of an increasing population, with no increase in arable land, has meant an embrace of genetically modified rice, as a way of increasing crop yields in Bangladesh.

The U.N. population report has considered how the necessary focus on urban development might affect rural development. “Treating 'rural' and 'urban' poverty as somehow separate and in competition with each other for resources is not only a conceptual mistake, but a remarkably short-sighted view of the problem,” the authors say. “In fact, successful rural development generally stimulates and supports urban development, and vice versa. In addition, successful rural development may actually generate more rural-urban migration. Conversely, urban growth is a powerful stimulus to food production, especially by small farmers. Access to flourishing urban markets contributes both to the reduction of rural poverty and to urban food security."

But access is key. Elsewhere in the news, on the home tab of the Yahoo! India e-mail account I keep for newsletter subscriptions, there were reports on the 11,500 suicides of Indian farmers in the last six years, most of them due to the farmers’ inability to pay debts, according to a study carried out by the National Social Watch Coalition. Journalist Palmagummi Sainath has spent years traveling India, speaking to farmers and recording their plight.

“Something very fundamental is happening,” he writes:

The central, driving factors behind the suicides remain the same. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices, a credit crunch and so on. But the outcome now adds up to more than just the sum total of these factors. After 15 years of a battering from hostile policies and governments, the world of the peasant has turned highly fragile. Problems that would not have driven many to suicide a decade ago do so now. It takes less to push farmers over the edge because their resistance is down. So fragile is their economy and equilibrium. The studies and surveys seldom account for one vital actor — the worldview of peasants. How that is changing as their links to the land erode. How their hopes of what’s possible are constantly dashed. How, losing their anchor, they drift to a frightening future. How it feels to watch your child drop out of school or college because education has become too expensive. Even as your daughter’s marriage is off, because you cannot afford it. You fail to get your ailing mother to a hospital because health is the most costly thing in your world. All this while agriculture itself is tanking. And there’s less food on the table. For too many, pessimism soaks the worldview this shapes. And despair gains ground as the coming deity.

The denial of water to farmers in Australia's Murray Darling area, starting next weekend, has brought the issue of farmer depression and suicide in Australia back into the news. The Australian Associated Press reports that the stage four water restrictions will only allow farmers water for domestic use and for livestock. If rains don't come by August, there will be no wine grape harvest for next year's production. Beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, and Asian vegetables are scarce here. Carrots, potatoes, and pumpkins are expected to become scarce, and prices are set to soar.

The AAP quoted Ted Hatty, a farmer who grows mixed crops in the Riverina area of NSW, as saying that farmers were under stress from having to pay annual irrigation fees of around $15,000 for water they won't be getting. And Michael Badcock, chairman of the Australian Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation, said that he'd witnessed a lot of depression among farmers. "I went to a field day the other day and I saw a couple of farmers break down in front of me," he said. "They've had to close their doors and put off their staff. There is a big challenge for Australia — it comes back to food security - how do we help these people start again?"

On July, The Australian Broadcasting Commission's Rural Division began a series of specials on the Murray Darling region, called "No Water in the Food Bowl." (They will be available on the ABC's website.) The Murray Darling Basin is home to nearly 2 million people, and provides water to another 1.25 million outside it; it contains more than a third of Australia’s farms and accounts for 43% of the country's gross agricultural production. The ABC specials will span the length of the river system: from Queensland, where the richest soil in the land is “bone dry," through New South Wales where the $A800 million wine-grape and citrus industry will be deprived of water for the first time, through Victoria, where the Murray river is so low that people can walk across it and tourism is being affected, into South Australia, at the mouth of the Murray, where commercial fishing and the environment are threatened by the drought.

By relating farming to tourism and the natural environment, the reports will connect parts of the story that often remain separate, allowing us to see how much the decisions about our food are made in the shadow of discussions about Australia’s export trade and the tourism business.

5 Responsesto “Growing despair on Indian and Australian farms”

  1. Kerry says:

    Hey-
    It's Kerry from The Sustainable Scoop. I've been reading this book, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. It's provided a phenomenally insightful view into the water problems in Australia, as well as other locations throughout the world, and if you haven't read it I recommend it. My husband and I have been talking lately about what exactly "the big picture" is, and how population problems can (and should) affect the decisions we make. Heavy stuff!
    -Kerry

  2. What needs to be recognized is that the segregation of food production outside of cities and towns no longer makes sense in an increasingly urbanized world. And there's a new sub-acre famring method called SPIN-Farming that turns urbanization to the farmer's advantage.

    Developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, SPIN requires minimal infrastructure and provides a specific process for generating significant income from land bases under an acre in size.It therefore integrates agriculture into the built environment in a commercially viable manner, and removes the two big barriers to entry for first generation farmers –they do not need much land or financial resources to do SPIN. Best of all, they can set up their farm operations right where they live, whether it be urban jungles or suburban car towns.

    By re-casting farming as a small business in a city or town, SPIN is engaged, not escapist, farming. And it is making farming accessible and relevant again to a new generation by positioning it as integral part of urban economies, rather than something a part from them.

  3. Emily says:

    Roxanne-

    Does SPIN focus on growing specialty salad crops for a rich gourmet market? If so, it's possible SPIN farming could produce money - but not produce enough *food* in the form of staple crops like grains and beans for most of the world's needs. I'm a big proponent of urban farming, but the sticking point I keep coming back to is that there isn't enough room to grow calorie crops within the city, especially because those calorie crops don't bring in enough money to pay for the plot of land.

  4. Emily--
    If your point is that growing food inside cities for localized markets will not solve world hunger, I agree. As I see it, it is not a zero sum game. SPIN-style farming will counterbalance and co-exist with agribusness, not replace it.

  5. Bruce F says:

    A few of us who live in the city of Chicago are trying to grow heirloom vegetables on our rooftops in cheap homemade earthboxes. In response to huge environmental problems, it's a small but rewarding way to push back. Also, we think they're a great way to build connections in a fragmented social/political landscape.

    Not selling anything, I'm giving "it" away.

    Here's the Flickr link, alongside the pics is a little how-to guide with plenty of links.